High School Homeroom

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School is only blocks from Harvard Yard, but it is really a world apart. The only public high school in Cambridge, Mass., Rindge and Latin's student body is a cross section of the city behind the privileged university. Nearly 70 flags hang from the ceiling of the cafeteria, representing the national origins of the 2,100 students. The day begins early here just before 8 a.m., when the streets in front of Rindge and Latin begin to fill up with kids. Some are chatting with friends, others hear only the rhythms of their Walkmans. Even amid this diversity, a few students stand out. They are girls like Charlene. unwillingly trapped in a time warp between adulthood and youth.

Charlene is 18, but her soft features make her look younger. She is still a kid, but she's also the single mother of a 1-year-old daughter, Ashley. As the other students push through the main I entrance, Charlene lugs Ashley and all her gear through a separate side entrance into a huge, toy-filled room on the ground floor. Ashley will spend the day here at First Steps, the school's day-care center and the heart of Rindge and Latin's seven-year-old Adolescent Parenting Program. Every year since 1985, the program has helped an average of 30 teen mothers stay in school. Even with that extra support, Charlene's days are long and hard. "We're not making it easy for these girls," says Peg Sprague, the head of First Steps. "We're just making it manageable." Charlene lives at home, but her mother works full time. "Getting Ashley up and getting her dressed seems like a full day to me," Charlene says wearily. And there will be two more years of mornings like this before she graduates.

A few years ago an unmarried teenage mother like Charlene wouldn't have had much of a chance in Cambridge. In the early 1980s. when Sherry Trella, Rindge and Latin's home-economics coordinator, first decided that the school needed a day-care program. officials estimated that 50 Cambridge girls a year dropped out after becoming mothers. Nationally, the picture was--and continues to be--equally discouraging. Each year, nearly 500,000 teens give birth. Half never complete school, many of the dropouts end up on welfare. Girls who have babies at 15 or 16 are likely to have at least one other child before they are 20. Given the stresses on their families, many of these children are at risk of being abused or ending up in foster care.

Although many schools, including Rindge and Latin, offer sex-education courses (box, page 52), there's no agreement among experts on how to stop this devastating epidemic of teen pregnancies. Once the babies are born, however, researchers say the best way to arrest the downward slide of these young families' lives is to get the mothers back in school. Studies have shown that teen mothers who graduate from high school have a better than even chance of reaching the same income level as their classmates. Mothers in school are also less likely to have a second or third child while they are still teenagers.

Most teen mothers say they want to come back to school, but they can't find child care. Often, their parents work or aren't available to help for other reasons; the fathers usually don't support the family, either. Twenty years ago most fathers involved in teen pregnancies married the mothers. These days, only a minority do. The few day-care centers that accept infants are often reluctant to take teens' babies because the young mothers have special problems. "Teens are often still fighting with their parents for control of their lives," says Barbara Cohen of The Urban Institute. "They have a hard time giving someone else responsibility for their child."

Schools have stepped in to help fill the gap. In the past decade, more than 300 schools in 46 states have started parenting and child-care programs for teen mothers, according to a national directory compiled by Fern Marx, a researcher at Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women. Most of the programs are financed by a combination of public and private funds. Many, as might be expected, are in poor, urban neighborhoods. Others are in rural parts of the country and even in relatively affluent suburbs. But despite this range, there are still nowhere near enough programs to handle the 800,000 children of teen mothers who need child care each year.

Some of the teen-parenting programs, like Rindge and Latin's, are located within regular high schools. There, girls get a chance to blend in, to be a kid again--even if it's only for a few hours a day. Many of Charlene's classmates don't even know she's a mother and she doesn't go out of her way to tell them. In the classroom, she's just another student. At other programs around the country, teen mothers attend their own separate schools that include day-care centers. Administrators of these programs say they are able to offer more comprehensive services, and some teen mothers say they are more comfortable being with girls in the same situation. New Futures School in Albuquerque, N.M., is considered a model of this kind of school. Principal Veronica C. Garcia says that nearly half of the 325 girls currently enrolled were dropouts. Before giving birth, they get prenatal health care and counseling sessions. As their due date approaches, they take a childbirth class. Afterward, they take child-development classes and can leave their children in one of four on-site nurseries--each geared to a different age group. They can even breast-feed during class.

Administrators of both types of school-based child-care centers say they serve two generations: the mothers and the babies. The range of other services varies widely but usually includes parenting classes and children's health care. At Rindge and Latin, the girls take child-development courses as well as a health course--all in addition to their regular studies. Most see their babies only at the beginning and the end of the day, or during lunch. They also participate in a mentor program with a local social-service agency, Cambridge Community Services. The young mothers are matched with older women who are successful in their careers; many of the mentors were once teen mothers themselves. Sometimes it's easier to teach by example, says Sprague of First Steps. That's why a few day-care slots are set aside for children of teachers or staff so that they can serve as parent role models.

The goal is to make the mothers and children self-reliant. At Rindge and Latin, Betsy Bard, a social worker, helps the girls negotiate the social-service and health-care systems. (About half of the girls receive some form of public assistance.) But once they are shown the way, they are expected to make and keep appointments on their own. The girls sign a contract that spells out their responsibilities. Breakfast and lunch are served at the center, but the mothers must bring in diapers and spare clothes. They are also required to volunteer for at least one academic period a week at the center. They get job counseling, and health care is available for them and their babies at the school's on-site clinic. This past year the school served 34 girls on a budget of just over $300,000--virtually all of it public funds. "It is expensive," says the principal, Ed Sarasin. "But I think it's well worth investing in our children. You either pay now or you pay later." And teen-pregnancy experts dismiss the criticism that the availability of high-school day care might encourage teens to have babies. All that these programs are, says Wellesley's Marx, "is an attempt to cope with an existing problem."

By this measure, Rindge and Latin's administrators consider their program a success. There was some initial resistance to the program when it first opened, but Sarasin says much of that cooled "when people saw that our pregnancy rate didn't go up or double or triple." Between 1985 and 1989, 87 percent of the total number of seniors in the program graduated. Not all of the others were dropouts, however; some went on to earn graduate equivalency diplomas outside the school.

But the real value of the program is not so much in statistics as in the stories of the mothers and their children. Many of the girls are themselves the daughters of teen mothers and are determined to break the cycle. Latrenya, 17, had just turned 15 when she got pregnant. She knew about birth control, but, she says, that knowledge didn't matter because "it was the time to have a baby." Latrenya's mother, now 40, was 15 when she had her first child. But rather than show sympathy when Latrenya told her she was pregnant, her mother gave her "the cold shoulder" for about a month, Latrenya says. Although Latrenya didn't go to a doctor until the end of her pregnancy, her daughter, Janessa, was born small but healthy. Latrenya stayed home two months and was easily persuaded to return to school when social worker Betsy Bard called. "I was bored silly," she says.

Boredom is certainly not her problem now. In addition to a full load of classes (she's on the honor roll), she works more than 20 hours a week at a local pharmacy. She expects to go to college in September. Now that Janessa's older, Latrenya has more child-care options. She plans to put Janessa in a day-care center near her house while she's attending classes. And she has goals beyond that. She'd like to own "a chain of small businesses"; she wants to get married someday and have at least one other child. She thinks a lot about Janessa's future. "I want to set an example for her," Latrenya says. "She's going to be very successful."

All the girls at Rindge and Latin are encouraged to be ambitious, and they're given practical advice on how to get ahead. At a career day for seniors recently, there were three women speakers--all of whom had given birth at a young age. Now, one is a television producer, another a computer-company manager and the third a college counselor. The first two women gave entertaining and inspiring accounts of their hard climbs to the top. Then the college counselor asked each of the girls to "share your dreams." At first, the girls were a little shy, but then they spoke out loud and clear. Shelly: "I want to be a good mother to my son." Maria: "I want to graduate from college with a degree in business management." Felicia: "I want to become a medical-office manager so I can be proud and stand on my own two feet." Danielle: "I want to be a talk-show host and write a book." Gleny: "I want to be a teacher and go as far as I can go." There was a lot of applause and everyone was smiling. At that moment, it all seemed possible.